mixed feelings

Regents balance praise and criticism in debrief on Common Core forums

Six weeks into Commissioner John King’s high-profile and often contentious meetings across the state focusing on the rollout of Common Core learning standards, state education officials praised—and raised new concerns about—those forums this morning.

At the Board of Regents’ monthly meeting in Albany on Monday, some applauded King for taking time to conduct the forums, which they suggested were often less than civil. “I cannot believe that the commissioner spent so much time away from this office trying to dispel misinformation and trying to explain what we’ve been doing,” said Anthony Bottar, a Regent who represents parts of Central New York.

But statewide, educators, parents and politicians remain divided over pushing forward with the reforms, and those tensions were evident in the room on Monday.

Political pressure to slow down the state’s implementation of the Common Core standards has been growing throughout the fall, sparked largely by the August release of test scores showing huge drops in proficiency on the English (24 points) and math (33 points) elementary and middle school state tests. In New York City, the drops were less severe, with 26 percent of students passing the English tests and just under 30 percent passing math, down from 47 percent and 60 percent, respectively.

That pressure was on display again last week, when state Senator John Flanagan released a report calling for reductions in early grade testing and raising doubts about the credibility of standardized state tests.

On Monday, some Regents directly criticized the public forums. Rochester’s Andrew Brown said that the meetings he attended didn’t include many minorities, which he called “concerning.” Bronx Regent Betty Rosa, whose forum last week was sparsely attended—likely because King did not attend—has been among the most critical board members, saying recently that the state’s policies were being driven by testing that produced “false information.”

To King, Rosa said, “I was really concerned it was our first meeting in the Bronx and you weren’t there, and I would be remiss if I didn’t express my concerns.”

King acknowledged the concerns shared by parents and teachers at the forums. But he said that those were “sometimes based on conflation of the Common Core with lots of other things,” such as testing requirements being imposed as part of new teacher evaluation systems. Other concerns weren’t related to state decisions, but to tests that had been negotiated locally between districts and local unions, he said. (Some have already begun to eliminate those tests after finding them burdensome.)

Untangling those tricky policy distinctions to allay criticism of the Common Core standards was the goal of the community forums when they were planned back in October. A contentious initial forum in Poughkeepsie, and King’s response of canceling future events, then became a national story, forcing officials to organize a new set of meetings that were more on the state’s terms.

King said that the pushback he heard at the public meetings were often in “stark contrast” to what he witnessed in nearby schools, which he said were embracing the standards. “[In] schools, people are, I think, very thoughtfully implementing the work on the Common Core,” King said.

After Monday’s meeting, state teachers union Vice President Maria Neira said she appreciated King taking the initiative to listen to local communities, but was “extremely disappointed by his lack of responsiveness.”

“I was very disappointed to hear how they characterized their listening tour,” Neira said of the Regents conversation.

The discussion also got a bit testy, in comparison to the dry collegiality of a typical Regents meeting. When Westchester’s Harry Phillips repeated his call for the state to acknowledge that it didn’t understand what effect the new cut scores would have on the state’s tests, Binghamton’s James Tallon rebuffed him. He pointed to a summer meeting where officials presented to the board the results from their cut-setting process, which has been scrutinized by some who participated.

“I understand that my dear colleague believes that the board did not fully understand the implication of the test cut scores,” Tallon said. “I just want to indicate that, as one board member, I sat in a meeting in this room with a presentation that was a lengthy presentation on the cut scores.”

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below:

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”